Old bags

Visitors to the Fort Dodge Public Library Thursday got a history lesson on the many ways Iowans used grain and flour bags in their everyday lives during the Great Depression.

The presentation, which was part of the Friends of the Library’s Brown Bag Briefing, was given by Michael Zahs, a biology and history teacher from Ainsworth.

Zahs said the practice of turning bags of feed into clothing came about after World War I. He said the bags were made of cotton, which was also used to make ammunition during the war. Because Germany didn’t have cotton, Zahs said people had fears that if they threw out their sacks it would fall into the wrong hands.

“If you threw out a flour sack you were helping the enemy,” Zahs said. “So people decided to do something with it so they could keep it. If they did that they weren’t going to throw it out.”

Gradually the practice caught on and more people started converting bags and sacks into clothing.

“The cloth was handspun and handwoven,” Zahs said.

Bags were used for a variety purposes.

“I’ve met a number of people who’ve said growing up, every piece of cloth at home had either been a feed or a grain bag,” he said. “Every article of clothing, every towel, washcloth, sheet, quilt, comforter. Absolutely every piece of cloth in the house had been something else first.”

According to Zahs, the practice of recycling cloth bags caught on after the companies began marketing their products to women.

“Women didn’t buy things and women didn’t go to the store,” he said. “So they started being marketed towards women. Is Mother’s Best flour going to have a marketing advantage?”

Eventually, companies began putting different designs and patterns on their bags to make them more visually appealing. During the Great Depression, companies also took that one step further.

“The companies would put dolls and animals on the back of their bags,” Zahs said.

It allowed families to buy not only a necessary product like sugar, but also a toy for their children to play with.

Other designs on bags included Walt Disney characters and reenactments of World War II battles.

Zahs said there were even parties designed solely for people to exchange what they had.

“They would have a sack party,” he said. “You’d bring strips and bags you didn’t want and trade with someone.”

The popularity of recycling bags and sacks led producers to also market them more broadly.

“If a pattern sold and sold well, they would be introduced into the fabric stores,” Zahs said.

About 40 people attended the presentation, including Alice Wiles, of Fort Dodge. She still uses recycled bags in her home.

“I have a dish towel that was made from a feed sack,” she said. “I remember picking out all the designs with my family when I was younger.”

Norma Johnson, of Fort Dodge, attended the presentation without knowing what to expect.

“It was very entertaining and informational,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t imagine all that they could do with bags.”